I give a talk this weekend on the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) In preparation, I have been reading a variety of books. The first two volumes of The Monarch History of the Church by Ivor J Davidson were part of my research. Both volumes are up-to-date and very readable. They are, as a comment in the blurb says, ‘a treat’.
Below is a taster. It is effectively Davidson’s summary of his first volume (The Birth of the Church) written near the beginning of his second (A Public Faith).
Christianity in the Early Fourth Century
As the fourth century began, Christianity had come a very long way from its beginnings in Palestine. It had spread far beyond its origins in Judaism and had won Gentile converts all over the Roman world and well beyond. It had weathered many storms, including official perse-
cution both small- and large-scale, widespread popular indifference or opposition to its ideas, and a great deal of failure, dispute, and division among its followers. It had developed sophisticated intellectual traditions in the articulation and defense of its essential teachings and had evolved structures of discipline, spirituality, and ministry that spoke of its social organization and the energy of its inner life.
It had touched individuals at all levels of society and had made disiples among people of widely differing ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Its communities of worshipers varied enormously in size, but they were to be found from Syria and Persia to the extremes of Western Europe, from Egypt and North Africa to Britain, the Balkans, Armenia, and Georgia. Christianity was by no means confined to imperial Roman territory; many of its most flourishing churches and spiritual traditions were concentrated deep in the heart of Asia and in significant parts of Africa. In a world in which new religious movements were plentiful and pluralism was a fact of life, this one faith-which declared that its message was for all but demanded exclusive commitment to the one God and to his Christ-had become a remarkably powerful force. Within the Roman Empire as a whole, 10 percent or more of the population called themselves Christians, and there were very significant numbers in regions that lay far beyond the Romans’ control.
The majority of believers were still located in urban areas, and in many regions people who lived in the countryside remained untouched by Christian evangelism. Nevertheless, in the last quarter of the third century Christianity had also spread quite significantly in rural areas,
and there had been a measurable decline in popular enthusiasm for some of the cults of regional deities. Christians still often met in private houses, but in many places their meeting rooms were officially recognized as church property, their clergy were publicly accepted
as leaders, and their rituals, teachings, and patterns of organization were witnessed routinely by society at large.
The majority of people in the Roman world remained unconcerned by the Christians’ behav-
iour; rumours of their odd ways were rife, and it was always possible to laugh at the Christians or blame them when times were difficult, but it was not easy to avoid their presence or escape the effects of their zeal in the densely packed, face-to-face environments of ancient urban
society. Indeed, at an individual level, many ordinary folk probably got on perfectly well with their Christian neighbours, and some admired their commitment to their lifestyle. Christians were increasingly to be found in quite affluent circumstances and in responsible positions,
in administration, in economic activity, in the professions, and in the imperial household itself. All in all, there were simply too many of them to ignore.
And this, indeed, was the problem. Not for the first time, it had become apparent to the authorities that the Christians were a political liability. There was significant sympathy in the Roman world for the idea that there was in the end a single divine being behind or beyond
all the gods and goddesses of classical religion. The Christians, however, like their Jewish progenitors and fellow eccentrics, seemed to take the obligations of their monotheism far too seriously. For generations, the followers of Christ had been notoriously awkward
in their attitude to the imperial cult, refusing to compromise their devotion to their Lord by acknowledging the emperor as divine or offering sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods. While the third century had seen large numbers of Christians brought to heel, either as traitors to their cause or as martyrs for it, there were enduring uncertain- ties as to their loyalty. The empire was crucially dependent upon a strong and reliable military force; some Christians refused to serve in the army altogether, and others risked offending Rome’s guardian divinities by making the sign of the cross when they went into battle.
In a world where things could easily go wrong, the Christians were too big a risk to Rome’s security. It was time to deal with them once and for all.
Ivor J Davidson
The Public Faith : The Monarch History of the Church